If you didn’t know you were watching Vin Diesel in “Find Me Guilty,” you wouldn’t know you were watching Vin Diesel. And that’s a compliment.
The strapping, smooth-domed action star goes pasty and paunchy — and he’s got hair! — to play real-life mobster Jackie DiNorscio, a member of New Jersey’s Lucchese family who defended himself in a mammoth federal trial.
Cracking wise for the jury in rich, gravelly tones, Diesel shows a charisma that you might not expect from the star of such blow-’em-up fare as “XXX,” but the performance is also a bit one-note. He’s entertaining, and his transformation comes as a surprise, but he’s that same guy all the time.
What isn’t surprising is the workmanlike nature of Sidney Lumet’s film. The veteran director (“12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Verdict”) offers the same sort of sturdy, steady drama we’ve come to rely on from him, though the proceedings inevitably feel sort of sluggish after a while. This was, after all, the longest criminal trial in United States history, lasting 21 months between 1987 and 1988 and encompassing 20 defendants accused of 76 different charges.
Peter Dinklage and Alex Rocco liven things up with strong supporting performances, though, and Annabella Sciorra is smoldering as Jackie’s ex-wife in one sexy scene that calls to mind her Emmy-nominated work as Tony’s dangerous mistress on “The Sopranos.” (Lumet himself says of Sciorra: “She has one scene, but it’s one hell of a scene.” We couldn’t have phrased it better.)
Having spent half his life behind bars, Jackie knows too much and thinks he’s more capable of defending himself in court than his lawyer could. Already serving a 30-year drug sentence, he’s offered the chance to testify against his mob family to shorten his sentence.
Not only does he turn down the proposition — which the sniveling prosecutor delivers along with a steak, shrimp cocktail and red wine — he has the chutzpah to stand up as his own lawyer when the whole Lucchese gang gets taken down.
Much of the script from T.J. Mancini and Robert McCrea comes from the actual courtroom testimony, and much of that consists of Jackie working the room like a Borscht Belt comedian.
“Dis guy tinks he’s Elliot Ness,” he cracks during the prosecutor’s opening statement — then during his own, he makes a dirty joke that leaves half the jurors laughing and half squirming in their seats. Diesel portrays Jackie as swaggering and volatile; he has no internal censor, which is an exciting thing to watch. Until the shtick becomes predictable, that is.
Eventually he learns how much he can get away with by bantering with the judge and from the advice he receives from levelheaded lawyer Ben Klandis, who represents one of the higher-ranking mob members. (Rocco is an ideal fit as mob boss Nick Calabrese, who is cruelly dismissive of the eager-to-please Jackie at every opportunity.)
With his resonant voice and intelligent manner, Dinklage brings great gravitas to the role; the diminutive star of the indie hit “The Station Agent” once again makes you quickly forget his stature. He actually towers right alongside the film’s more famous leading man.